Freemasonry is allegorical geometry. As much as I love symbolism and mystical, fantastical, secret meanings, I think the myths and conspiracies of Freemasonry have come about by fear of the unknown. These myths have survived how fairy tales and the bogey man have survived centuries. Because of this, many lodges, my uncle's included, have been opening their doors and letting the public, non-Masons in to ask any questions, look around, view relics, current regalia and texts and even hosting open ceremonies and installations. I have attended many Masonic activities with my uncle, a union carpenter and Mason since 1992. I have read through the manuals and original documents of his lodge. Of course, I love to allow my imagination to create a mystic world about Freemasonry, and it is easy to do in drafty old Masonic lodges surrounded by symbols and ornate antiques. I remember one funny incident. I found two sheathed instruments with curious carvings on the covers. I picked them up, showing my uncle, and asking, "What are these?! Some secret, ritualistic knives?" My uncle, smiling, pulled the covers off and I saw a fork in one hand and a what looked like a letter opener in the other, "A turkey carving set," he said with a knowing grin. I'm not the only one trying to catch them in a secret. Once, while my uncle was giving a speech about the lodge, one woman was looking around and asked, "What's behind this little door?" He jokingly told her it was a secret. He then opened it and behind the door was the old electrical panel to the upper floor. Another question was asked about the 2 long narrow bars that ran perpendicular across the room. I always thought they were for hanging sheer veils in dim, candle lit rooms while recitations of the sacred text echoed from the shadows on the walls around the new initiate who is lead blindfolded as he hears the story of the ancients and Hiram Abiff...but there is no mystical reason, just to hold up the walls of the 140 year old room! I was disappointed again!
Freemasonry began as an operative labor union or trade guild. "Mason" is Latin for "builder." A Freemason is one of skilled labor, such as construction, and can journey to where the work is. Hundreds of years ago, instead of a dues card being presented, secret handshakes were given to the foreman of a work site, so that he knew that the laborer was skilled. By the grip he could tell at what level of skill the worker was- apprentice, journeymen or master. This protected the livelihood of laborers and quelled the employment of unskilled, or cowan, workers.
Symbols were widely used hundreds of years ago because of widespread illiteracy, as I mentioned, Freemasonry, because of it roots in construction work, is allegorical geometry. "In an age of illiteracy, ideas about the nature of the Universe were incorporated into the fabric of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals...man was said to be made according to the same principles as the Universe..."(Freemasonry:An Illustrated History of the Once Secret Order.)
The All Seeing Eye has forever been used to symbolize God. As literacy became more common, it was replaced by the letter "G" for God and Geometry, the sacred art because no matter where one travels in the world, Geometry is the same- "...ratio and harmony so beautiful and universal in their application as to appear divine..."(Freemasonry: An Illustrated History of the Once Secret Order)
At a time when being a Christian was punishable by death, they would meet in secret and use secret symbols, such as Ichthus, or "the Jesus fish" as we know it now, to lead followers to the meetings.
"Kill them all. God will recognize his own."As the Catholic Church became sublime and supreme and would use the cruelest forms of torture and punishment against any organization that did not fear and bow to them, and ohhh, the Crusades!... the Masons were forced meet in secret as well because of the chances of being convicted of heresy, and executed because of the lack of knowledge about what they were- which is ironic since the cornerstone of Freemasonry is knowledge, the ever-seeking quest and desire for it. It was not until the Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th centuries that Freemasonry declared itself and was open to non-laborers, such as aristocracy, and became known as Speculative Masonry. This seems to be where Freemasonry gets mixed in with the Occult and Mysticism since some of the new members were familiar and experimenting with it at the time.
Freemasonry is full of self-improving lessons with symbols to remind the followers of them. Every religion and country has Masons. The holy doctrine, whether it be the Torah, Koran or Bible, is always present and in the middle of the room at all meetings and ceremonies.These doctrines are to be used as life guides for the members, as a compass or ruler would be to a builder. If a Mason enters any lodge anywhere in the world, the room will be set up exactly the same, just like sacred Geometry.
Only 8 of the 56 signers of the Declaration were known Masons- Benjamin Franklin, Richard Stockton,William Whipple, George Walton, William Hooper, John Hancock,William Ellery, Joesph Hewes... and Robert Treat Paine is listed as having attended Massachusetts Grand Lodge in 1759.(Paul Bessel; www.bessel.org/declmas.htm). The author of our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, has been said to be a Mason, because Masons marched ceremoniously at his funeral, however, so did many other social organizations. I think this was an honorary act by the Masons out of respect for his contributions to the new nation. There is no known record of Thomas Jefferson being a Mason.
Many conspiracy theorists are forever finding secret symbolism and meanings in the founding and design of our country. The eagle is said to have been chosen because it is a Masonic symbol; however, Ben Franklin, who we know from records was a Mason, wanted to have the turkey as the new nation's bird; as he wrote of his disappointment to his daughter after the eagle was chosen, he mentions that the eagle's character was immoral and that the turkey was wily and intelligent.
13, that ill-omened number! Some people try to use against the Masons because the Great Seal has 13 arrows in one claw of the eagle, 13 leaves of the olive branch, and 13 stars, that when connected a certain way, form the Star of David, a pentagram or a compass and square and each corner points to a letter that can be used to spell MASON. Some believe this to mean that there is a hidden agenda to the Masons, a hint of their ubiquitous presence and influence of a "new world."
Still, other curious ones, who aren't Mason, accuse this symbolism of Masonic of mal- intent or a wink to some sort of Satanical power. However, it makes more sense that 13 was chosen for the Great Seal because of the 13 original colonies that were brought together to form a new nation.
The Latin phrase "Novus Ordo Seclorum" does not mean "new world order" as many conspiracy theorists have said, implying that behind the world's power are the Mason; Novus Ordo Seclorum means "new order of ages" Maybe this was chosen not because Masons were secretly taking over the world, but because a new nation was being formed, a Republic. The Eagle is said to have been chosen because it is a Masonic symbol; however, Ben Franklin, who we know from records was a Mason, wanted to have the turkey as the new nation's bird; he thought that the eagle's character was immoral and the turkey was wily and intelligent, as he wrote of his disappointment to his daughter after the eagle was chosen.
It was more than a century later, in 1935, when the Great Seal was placed on the dollar bill by Franklin D. Roosevelt, a known Masonic brother. This is one instance where Masons may live up to the conspiracies. Henry Wallace, an advisor of FDR's, also a Mason, yet Wallace was interested in the Occult and mysticism and communicated often with Nicholas Rurick, a Russian mystic. I don't believe this is common of Masons, however, or that it was a collective, Masonic decision.
Once I asked my uncle, when I was joining The Order of the Eastern Star, "Are you sure that there isn't more to the Masons than you're telling me?" He told me, "If they had more power, and influence, I wouldn't be unemployed as much as I am."
sources: The History Channel,
Freemasonry: An Illustrated History of the Once Secret Order, Jack M. Driver
and my uncle, union carpenter, Mason since 1992 and historian of Brearly Lodge No. 2, Bridgeton NJ